Monday, November 1, 2010

Mild Horses

Watching Secretariat was like eating at Friendly's. It was decent and I enjoyed it while I was watching it but it's not an experience that was particularly memorable or that will cause me to heartily recommend it to others. The best I can say about it is that it's a competently made docu-drama with good writing, a few better-than-good performances and some very pretty scenery and that seeing it was a pleasant way to spend a Friday evening in much the same way a burger and sundae at Friendly's would be. Yes, that's faint praise but it's the best I can do.

I was interested in seeing this because, while I knew that the horse had won a record setting Triple Crown in 1973, I knew nothing else about it or the people who owned and raced him. The best things in the movie are Diane Lane and the character she plays, Penny Chenery Tweedy. When the movie opens, Penny is your average middle class housewife living in Denver in the late 60s. We see her and her family during dinner as she runs back and forth to the kitchen as her husband, tax lawyer Jack (Dylan Walsh), serenely parks his ass at the table reading the paper and making small talk with the kids. This screencap of pre-feminist America takes a poignant turn when the phone rings and Penny is told that her mother has passed. She and Jack have to make the sad trip to her parents' Virginia horse farm only to find out that her father (Scott Glenn)is pretty far in the grip of Alzheimer's and that it's been her mother who has been (poorly) running the farm for a few years now. Her brother (who's not a bad guy) wants to sell the farm and put their father into a nursing home but Penny just can't bear the idea of taking a sick, old man away from his home just after he's lost his wife so she decides to hang around for a bit and try to get the farm into shape.

The best plot element is Penny realizing that she enjoys the new responsibilities that she's taken on. She's one of those people who thought she was perfectly content with her existence which, in this case, was being a suburban housewife. Before this happened, she probably would have told you that she was fine with her life the way it was and she would have meant it but now, all of a sudden, she's making decisions and taking actions that affect a multi-million dollar operation that is also her father's life's work and legacy. She even starts referring to herself by her maiden name due to that name's recognition in the horse business, a fact about which her husband isn't particularly happy. A lot of people don't take her seriously, of course. Her brother really doesn't like it when, for a complex set of reasons, she has a potential choice between two foals and wants the one from the older, slower mare. She ends up with the one she wants, a horse they call Big Red and race under the name Secretariat.

She hires a surly and acerbic trainer named Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich). He has retired from the racing business but she lures him back because he really really really isn't enjoying retirement and his research and instincts tell him the same thing that Penny's research and instincts told her, that Secretariat had the potential to be a champion. Don't worry, I won't spoil the movie by telling you if they were right.

Laurin wasn't as interesting as I was expecting him to be, a script problem that even an actor like Malkovich couldn't overcome. In fact, one of the movie's biggest problems is that the only really compelling character in Penny. Everyone else is, at best, a colorful caricature of a real person. It's only Penny, the woman who ends up gambling her financial future and her harmonious family life, that propelled the movie for me and made me curious how she and the horse would overcome the obstacles (a variety of health and financial problems) they faced before they both ascended to the legendary status they enjoy today.

Secretariat is worth seeing, but only barely. This is known as damning with faint praise. Frankly, the only reason I went to see it is because the only two movies in the multiplex I hadn't seen were this and Saw 3D and I would willingly undergo that Clockwork Orange deal where my eyes are held open while Secretariat plays again and again for several weeks before I would ever watch another Saw film.

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